The state on Wednesday finally revealed the winners of $75 million worth of grants to transit agencies funded in last year’s budget. Transit agencies and advocates welcomed the news, while cautioning that it represents a drop in the bucket of what’s ultimately needed.
So what if I told you that $75 million is, itself, only a drop in the bucket of what the state is spending on transit? That, between projects already under construction and those on the docket for the next decade or so, the state will be spending almost $11 billion — with a “B” — to boost transit infrastructure?
You might laugh. If so, you might be thinking about it the wrong way.
For decades, most people have thought of transit as being distinct from roads. When the two were mashed together, it was in the context of buses sharing still-clogged roads with the very cars bus riders were trying to escape. Limited appeal there, understandably.
But the $11 billion I’m talking about represents a better way of thinking about transit and roads. It’s money for double-duty infrastructure that helps people move more quickly, whether they drive themselves or not.
By now you may have guessed I’m talking about the growing network of tolled express lanes the Georgia DOT is building and planning for metro Atlanta’s interstates. A trio of projects under way on Interstates 85, 75 and 575 north of Atlanta, and on I-75 south of town, will bring the total number of miles covered by these lanes to more than 67.
Earlier this year, GDOT revealed that some of the $900 million a year raised by the 2015 transportation bill will go toward connecting and expanding those spurs, adding almost 55 miles to the total. By the time that next phase of construction is finished, one will be able to travel from Acworth to Braselton, or from Vinings to Alpharetta, in lanes priced to keep traffic flowing freely.
And that trip will be possible in one’s own car, or on a bus.
Buses are allowed to use the lanes at no charge, and they’ll be all the more attractive if demand keeps prices high for everyone else. (The toll rates rise and fall in real time based on how many vehicles are using the lane, to keep traffic in them moving at a minimum of 45 mph.)
The state’s Xpress buses already carry 2 million passengers per year, even though the best they offer is a trip in HOV lanes, which can become just as clogged as regular lanes. (This is one reason the tolled lanes are preferable to HOV lanes.) How much more appealing will they be — or MARTA buses, or Gwinnett or Cobb buses — if they slide past slow-moving traffic for a couple of dozen miles at a time? And then connect to MARTA’s existing rail outposts along the Perimeter?
That is transit expansion, just as surely as building more rail beyond those outposts would be.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for additional transit expansion the way people typically think of it, either within Atlanta’s city limits as MARTA is now seeking via referendum or elsewhere. It just means the state is already in the business of building transit infrastructure, even if many people don’t give it the credit.